Wednesday, August 10, 2005

What is an Ecumenical Council?

In the history of the Church there have been 21 Ecumenical Councils. Starting with the Council of Nicea in 325, and with the most recent being Vatican Council II in 1965, Ecumenical Councils have been occasions for bishops from around the world to come together to discuss important issues relating to the faith. Typically, councils have been convoked as a response to a doctrinal crisis or other matter needing attention (the exception being Vatican II, which, as a "pastoral" council, was intended to be a reflection on how the Church could better preach the Gospel). Many councils have definitively settled issues by setting forth precise doctrinal definitions (see this post for examples). The key elements in such a council are: 1) a calling of the council, 2) the deliberation by gathered bishops, and 3) a definition of some subject and promulgation of that definition.

The authority behind the teachings of an Ecumenical Council stems directly from the authority of the Pope himself, and the bishops gathered with him. (While the Pope has not been present at every council, he has always assented to the decrees promulgated by them.) In a particular way as well, the bishops participate in the decisions of the council and in exercising unity with each other and with him. Here is what Vatican II's Lumen Gentium had to say regarding this:
Although the individual bishops do not enjoy the prerogative of infallibility, they can nevertheless proclaim Christ's doctrine infallibly. This is so, even when they are dispersed around the world, provided that while maintaining the bond of unity among themselves and with Peter's successor, and while teaching authentically on a matter of faith or morals, they concur in a single viewpoint as the one which must be held conclusively. This authority is even more clearly verified when, gathered together in an ecumenical council, they are teachers and judges of faith and morals for the universal Church. Their definitions must then be adhered to with the submission of faith.
But the key element at work in an Ecumenical Council is none other than that of the Holy Spirit. Christ promised that the Holy Spirit would be with the Church until the end of time. John Paul II teaches us the following in Dominum et Vivificantem:
The era of the Church began with the "coming," that is to say with the descent of the Holy Spirit on the Apostles gathered in the Upper Room in Jerusalem, together with Mary, the Lord's Mother. The time of the Church began at the moment when the promises and predictions that so explicitly referred to the Counselor, the Spirit of truth, began to be fulfilled in complete power and clarity upon the Apostles, thus determining the birth of the Church. The Acts of the Apostles speak of this at length and in many passages, which state that in the mind of the first community, whose convictions Luke expresses, the Holy Spirit assumed the invisible-but in a certain way "perceptible"-guidance of those who after the departure of the Lord Jesus felt profoundly that they had been left orphans. With the coming of the Spirit they felt capable of fulfilling the mission entrusted to them. They felt full of strength. It is precisely this that the Holy Spirit worked in them and this is continually at work in the Church, through their successors. For the grace of the Holy Spirit which the Apostles gave to their collaborators through the imposition of hands continues to be transmitted in Episcopal Ordination. The bishops in turn by the Sacrament of Orders render the sacred ministers sharers in this spiritual gift and, through the Sacrament of Confirmation, ensure that all who are reborn of water and the Holy Spirit are strengthened by this gift. And thus, in a certain way, the grace of Pentecost is perpetuated in the Church.
We can learn much about the action of the Holy Spirit in a council by studying the Acts of the Apostles chapter 15 - sometimes referred to as the "Council of Jerusalem". Although this was a "local" council (being presided over by James, a local bishop, rather than Peter, the first Pope) there is a great deal of similarity between this action and the action of a typical Ecumenical Council.

First, there is the calling. In Acts 15, the new community of Christians experiences its first controversy since Jesus' ascension into heaven. The dispute is over the necessity for baptized Gentiles to also undergo Jewish ceremonial initiation as well, specifically circumcision. Since there was "no small dissension and debate,... Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and the elders about this question" (Acts 15:2). The apostles were thus called together.

Second, there is the deliberation by gathered bishops. The book of Acts records: "The apostles and the elders were gathered together to consider this matter. And after there had been much debate, Peter rose and said to them..." (Acts 15:6-7).

Finally, there is a definition and promulgation. After the deliberations, James is recorded as saying "Therefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God, but should write to them to abstain from the pollutions of idols and from unchastity and from what is strangled and from blood." (Acts 15:19-20). He is expressing his judgment that Gentiles do not need to be circumcised. Everyone present having agreed with this judgment, the decree is then promulgated: "They sent Judas called Barsabbas, and Silas, leading men among the brethren, with the following letter:" (Acts 15:22-23)

Now, the key to the early Church's understanding of this event is found in the letter that Barsabbas and Silas carried. The formula used in the letter is "For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us" (Acts 15:28). The apostles clearly saw that the Holy Spirit, whom Christ promised would always be with them, was guiding them along, and was with them in their deliberations. What, to the outside, may have appeared as just a group of men gathering for a synod, was, on another level, the Divine speaking through His chosen human agents, the apostles, to whom Christ had given teaching authority.

In the same way, the Holy Spirit can be seen at work, even today, in the Church when the bishops gather together with the Bishop of Rome to discuss matters of faith. In particular, the decrees of each one of the 21 Ecumenical Councils have been set forth under the (implicit, if not explicit) understanding "It has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us". Christ promised that the Holy Spirit would always be with the Church, and so we can accept with full confidence the promulgations of the Ecumenical Councils as being reflections and teachings which are inspired by the Holy Spirit. This is the reality that John Paul II aptly captured in his summary from the above quote from Dominum et Vivificantem: "the grace of Pentecost is perpetuated in the Church."


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